One colleague wrote, “I think you will find many [such] stories among recent hires at UBC who left us due to the real estate woes, or candidates we wanted to attract who took a look at the housing prices and voted with their feet.” Welcome to the UBC paradox: A remarkably land rich university that is running the risk of losing its competitive edge because of the prohibitive cost of its own real estate.
It is indeed a fact that not only the cost of housing in Vancouver’s West side has become insane, but this insanity has also engulfed the university’s neighborhoods. An offer of an $80K annual salary to an assistant professor is immediately trivialized by the news that a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the UBC campus costs as much as 6.5 times his/her pre-tax salary.
The situation is even more hopeless for new recruits with children. There is no detached house in Vancouver West for less than $1.2 million. Their only option –besides rejecting the university’s offer– is to avoid living on campus and the west side altogether.
Housing affordability and choice for faculty and staff are indeed the most significant obstacles to UBC’s ongoing quest to become a world leading university. There is no doubt that these factors are preventing us from recruiting and retaining many outstanding faculty and staff. Some departments are already experiencing the consequences of the housing crunch, especially those who have made a conscious decision to increase their levels a notch or two in order to be more competitive on the world level.
But let’s face it. This challenge is not felt uniformly across the university and many of our departments are neither in that league nor in that operating mode yet. Just look at the Faculties who couldn’t care less about this debate. They will always be able to find people to recruit after all.
And what if they –outstanding or ordinary– come anyway and accept to live in Surrey, which is more than an hour away from their workplace. Our colleagues, Darrin Lehman and Yves Tiberghien say that this is extremely costly to the university, in many ways.
“We know several faculty whose behavior changed dramatically once they moved off-campus. Owing to traffic and the loss of efficiency, they started coming in only 2 days a week. Gradually, they started avoiding students and meetings, the opposite of what they were doing for years when they lived on campus.”
“The situation also creates perverse incentives towards devoting more and more time to consulting and non-scholarly activities, or accepting visiting positions elsewhere, as soon as April comes along. Gradually, faculty who stay at UBC will find themselves becoming helicopter professors, dropping in for classes and crucial duties, and rushing off to earn money or do their long commute home.”
They also talk about the advantages of having faculty living on, or close to the university vs. renting far off-campus.
- Unlike other jobs, a key contribution of faculty is the extras they do for their students and community beyond their research & teaching. Service is a key part of a thriving university, and yet it presumes some slack in a faculty member’s time and a safe home base. Housing insecurity cuts all this away as it initiates a fight for survival – desperately looking for alternatives to provide stable housing for one’s family.
- Faculty are more available for evening classes and evening events with students, more available for graduate students, more productive, when not wasting hours in traffic or moving homes given the unstable rental market.
- They are less pushed toward doing consulting and other money-earning activities outside campus, more rooted with long-term commitment to university as a life mission.
There are also other benefits to the university for having faculty, staff and students live on campus.
- The importance of sustaining and preserving the special character of the UBC Town as a university community.
- The necessity of protecting the governance of the university land from unintended consequences of uncontrolled development. With the hospice controversy in mind, one could venture that UBC-affiliated personnel are better positioned to accept and appreciate the living conditions within a university community. They would be more inclined to accept keeping academic priorities at the core of future decisions regarding campus development, taxation, representation, and governance.
- The urgency of controlling the traffic flow in and out of campus, by making sure that more people affiliated with UBC live at UBC. It is not hard to contemplate an undesirable alternative where a reverse traffic flow is created by having substantial numbers of UBC dwellers commute to work outside of campus, while UBC personnel living elsewhere struggle to get to work in the opposite direction.
Doing away with such potential benefits is another real cost for the university. But as mentioned by the Dean of Applied Science, there is also another costly consequence to watch for, if we fail to act.
“There is a psychological factor that makes many professors bitter and angry with UBC. When a professor feels that after 20 years of service to UBC he/she is unable to buy a unit on campus but others who have nothing to do with UBC are; it is very demoralizing.”
“In sum”, conclude Lehman and Tiberghien, “there are many benefits that are externalities and not integrated into the pure monetary equation. Ideally, we should put values on these other things and see how the equation changes.”
Amen! The question is how?